It does seem to me that evangelical leaders, and every evangelical Christian, have a very special responsibility not to just go along with the “blue-jean syndrome” of not noticing that their attempts to be “with it” so often take the same forms as those who deny the existence or holiness of the living God.

Accommodation leads to accommodation — which leads to accommodation…

Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster

That few Christians were surprised when leading Emergent evangelical Brian McLaren announced  his decision to participate in the Islamic month of Ramadan testifies to the pitiable state into which evangelicalism has fallen.  What is evangelicalism?  Historically the language is rooted in the Protestant (notably Lutheran) Reformation, though it was also used by certain pre-Reformation Roman Catholics to designate those who wished to return to a more Bible-centered Faith.  On the Protestant side, evangelicalism has traditionally denoted Christians who believe in (1) an individual, born-again experience by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to a church-centered salvation and in (2) the authority of the Bible as opposed to competing church traditions.  Evangelicals affirm the evangel, the good news that salvation is found exclusively in Jesus, not the church, and attested in the infallible Word of God, the Bible, which judges all things.  Inherent in historic evangelicalism is a willingness to draw sharp lines: some people are evangelical, and some are not; some views are compatible with evangelicalism, and some are not.  To profess Christianity is not on that account alone to be considered evangelical.

Over the last three decades, evangelical identity, not merely emphasis, has changed.  Today there are liberal evangelicals, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox evangelicals, homosexual evangelicals, pro-abortion evangelicals, and soon, perhaps, trans-gendered evangelicals.  The distinctive adjectives so drastically modify the term “evangelical” that in most cases they modify it right out of its original meaning (like “married bachelors” or “dry water”).

The prime driver behind this verbal dilution is accommodation to the surrounding secular culture.  The specific form of accommodation is usually distaste for differences based on moral (or theological) judgments.  “Celebrate diversity” may be the slogan of the era in the West, but this celebration does not seem to include moral judgments, which are the anathema of our postmodern age — and, in fact, the only surviving acceptable moral judgment.  No one is immoral except people who say that other people are immoral.  That includes historic evangelicals, who make moral judgments based on the Bible.  This form of diversity is unforgivable in a culture that “celebrates diversity.”

Give Me That Old-Time Modernism

Lust for accommodation in the form of dislike of sharp differences, however, is not a distinctively postmodern phenomenon.  In their standard work Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), John Dillenberger and Claude Welch list as one of the “formative principles of liberalism” “[e]mphasis upon the principle of continuity (i.e., concern for similarity and likeness rather than difference and opposition)” (213, emphasis in original).

The attempt to find syntheses between two raggedly irreconcilable viewpoints or practices is a mark of Protestant liberalism (sometimes called “modernism”), not of historic evangelicalism.  This “synthesis fixation” was part and parcel of the wide cultural acceptance of organic views of human existence and history in the 19th century, during which liberalism emerged.  The folk version of this “synthesis fixation” is Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis sequence: radical differences meet one another, combine, and are thereby transformed.  The net effect of a wide cultural acceptance of this outlook is relativism of the most intense sort: what today seems morally contradictory or objectionable is simply the orthodoxy of tomorrow when creatively combined with its present antithesis.   Profligate homosexuality (for example) when synthesized with its opposition becomes a new, thoughtful, enlightened view of homosexuality (“committed homosexual relationships”). History is the matrix within which opposites are overcome, including irreconcilable religions.  For this reason, liberalism, Dillenberger and Welch note, “emphasized the common features of Christianity and non-Christian religions” (214).  Like Islam.

This is not, to put it mildly, the spirit of the great figures of the Bible.  Elijah did not seek accommodation with the prophets of Baal.  Jesus did not labor for accommodation with the Pharisees.  Paul did not work to accommodate the Judaizers.  John did not accommodate the Docetic heretics.  The men of God whose holy exploits appear in the Bible worked to sharpen distinctions between good and evil — not to blur or erase those distinctions.  They were not interested in accommodation with false religion; they were interested in fidelity to God.

This zeal does not characterize many modern evangelicals, who, Harold O. J. Brown once ironically observed, are often so far behind the cultural pace-setters that they seem to be spearheading an entirely new movement when, in fact, they are simply very late to the party (“True and False Liberation in the Light of Scripture,” Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, eds. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], 135). Evangelicals get around to riding the trendy wave just about the time that wave is crashing ashore and another is forming.  Their lust for accommodation ends up being an embarrassing form of cultural catch-up.  In terms of “concern for similarity and likeness rather than difference and opposition,” the accommodation junkies are finally catching up to 19th century liberalism.

In the form of accommodation championed by Brian McLaren and others like him, therefore, we are not really observing evangelicalism at all but rather a revival of “old-time modernism” — specifically the lust for synthesis at all costs, the overcoming of religious differences by fiat and by compromise.  The fact that some religions and doctrines are mutually irreconcilable is not a major plank in the liberal calculation, nor is it in today’s evangelical calculation, despite the fact that Elijah, Jesus, Paul and John took this mutually irreconcilability for granted.

Let us recall that “old-time modernism” did not appear ex nihilo, but sprang as a reaction to the perceived rigidities of evangelical orthodoxy.  That’s how liberalism got here in the first place.

In many ways, in the “Emergent Movement,” we are witnesses to the replay of the Liberal-Fundamentalist divide of the early 20th century, adapted, however, to the postmodern condition.  The great centers of evangelicalism infested with the “synthesis fixation,” committed at all costs to avoiding sharp lines of distinction between the church and the world, between false religion and true religion, and between Christ and Anti-Christ, will likely split.

The lesson from history: if we refuse to split from false religion outside the church, we will eventually be forced to confront the split between true and false religion within the church.

Or simply let the church gradually surrender to apostasy.

After all, “Accommodation leads to accommodation — which leads to accommodation….”